Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 23, 2021

River City Roundabaout: CTC actors bring Hitchcock thrillers back to life

One of two casts for the Chattanooga Theatre’s performance of “Vintage Hitchcock.” - Photograph provided

Believe it or not, there was a time when there were no cellphones, smart TVs or tablets beaming news, entertainment and social media into our brains 24/7.

Instead, families gathered at a console radio to listen to – not watch – news and entertainment.

Huddled around an RCA, people heard Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre deliver the infamous “War of the Worlds” radio drama, listened to the Metropolitan Opera perform Wagner and caught play-by-play broadcasts of boxing matches and baseball games.

Known as the Golden Age of Radio, it spanned from the 1920s until the 1950s when television surpassed radio to become the dominant home entertainment medium.

The Chattanooga Theatre Centre is bringing this gilded time back with a twist – of a knife – in performances of playwright Joe Landry’s “Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Play.”

If you can peel your eyes off your high-def screen and remove your earbuds for a couple of hours, I believe you’ll have a great time. As someone who loves the master of suspense, as well as old movies in general, I certainly did.

“Vintage Hitchcock” is a stage presentation of fictional radio performances of three early Hitchcock films: “The Lodger” (1927), “Sabotage” (1936) and “ The 39 Steps” (1935).

Two casts of five actors each bring these tales of espionage, murder, love and other Hitchcock trademarks to life, with the troupes swapping performances of the triple feature throughout the two-week run of the play.

I had the pleasure of watching the talented “Psycho” cast perform, though I’m sure the “Notorious” cast is just as brilliant. (Each cast is named after a Hitchcock film.)

No performance of an old-fashioned radio drama would be complete without a musician seated at a working antique organ, or a foley artist creating sound effects, and the CTC also filled these roles with gifted folks.

At the performance I attended, foley artist Helene Haile must have worked up a sweat as she manufactured foreboding thunder claps out of a large sheet of metal, gun shots from popped balloons and clanking dishes from, well, clanking dishes.

Like the nerve-jarring scream of a murder victim in a Hitchcock film, Haile’s timing was impeccable.

The setting, which I imagine bears a resemblance to a 1940s radio station, is perfect, too. Complete with an on-air light, a guy tucked away in a booth and what looks like five vintage microphones placed on small platforms, the stage really pulled me back in time to a different era.

Part of the fun of seeing “Vintage Hitchcock” is spotting the hidden nods to the acclaimed filmmaker on the set, like the dozen or so birds perched on the telephone poles in the background. I spent the 15 or so minutes between being seated and the beginning of the play scanning the stage for these small treasures and found quite a few.

Other nice touches are the squelchy radio broadcasts that play before the performance and the pitch perfect Hitchcock impression the master of ceremonies does over the loud speaker.

If you’ve ever seen an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” then you’ll smile as the announcer introduces the “morbid” (deliciously drawn out to “morrrbid”) dramas.

The CTC simply does a terrific job of setting the mood for “Vintage Hitchcock.”

The performance begins with “The Lodger,” which tells the story of the hunt for Jack the Ripper in London. Featuring four characters, it’s the easiest of the three plays to follow.

Hitchcock directed the film during the silent era of movies, but the cast at the CTC brings it to life with dialogue Landry pulled from the 1913 Marie Belloc Lowndes novel on which the movie was based.

After warming up, the cast and crew shift into high gear for the briskly paced “Sabotage.” My head spun as the actors switched characters on the fly, often leaping back and forth in age and swapping accents and genders without batting an eye.

Meanwhile, various stage effects further immersed the audience in the more startling moments of the drama, including a blackout and an explosion. If you’re thinking a stage play of a radio drama sounds boring, you couldn’t be more wrong.

Unfortunately, so much happens so quickly, I had a hard time following the story. After returning home, I watched Hitchcock’s film, and it all made sense, but during the play, I was lost.

That said, as I viewed the film, I was impressed by how remarkably well the cast of the play had re-created its soundscape, from the diction of the movie’s actors to small details like the background chatter of an angry crowd.

If you’re also thinking the all-volunteer cast of “Vintage Hitchcock” would be incapable of delivering a professional-grade performance, then you’re wrong again. There’s a lot of impressive talent on the stage at the CTC.

Before beginning “The 39 Steps,” the cast showed off its ability to deliver a catchy jingle in a classic-style radio commercial advertising a certain motel. This bonus treat had the audience laughing and made the Hitchcock fan in me smile.

Maybe the story of “The 39 Steps” is easier to grasp, or maybe I had adjusted to the unique style of storytelling, or maybe the cast and crew just knocked the final drama out of the ballpark, but the afternoon ended with I believe was the most exciting and engaging of the three performances.

After it was over, the socially distanced crowd rose to its feet as it applauded and hurled “bravos” and whistles at the stage.

Hitchcock was a virtuoso when it came to tightening the rope of suspense around the viewer’s neck, and while these radio dramas lack that crucial element of his stories, the sheer fun of the whole thing more than made up for the lack of tension.

As the lights turned on and I tilted my neck to look at my phone, I stopped and instead lifted my gaze again to the stage, which was already empty. While I sat there, I could picture a family huddled around a Philco, leaning in and biting their nails as the Ripper approaches his next victim.

We live in a remarkable time, with access to technologies people 80 years ago probably couldn’t conceive. And while I wouldn’t trade my iPhone for an RCA, I’m pleased the CTC has made a way for people to experience these timeless tales in a format that might not have been timeless but is well worth revisiting.

Show times and tickets are available at TheatreCentre.com.